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Creation and Fall

An address by Fr John Slater

09 March 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

It’s unfortunate that the Prayer Book gives us so very few readings from the Old Testament because it’s hard to understand the Sunday readings from the New Testament with out some background in the development of Hebrew religion in the Old Testament. So I shall be preaching four sermons this Lent on Old Testament themes, beginning today with Creation and Fall.

It’s important first of all to remember that the 39 books of the Old Testament were not written in the order in which we have them today. The real writing of Hebrew scripture begins with the records of the preaching of the great prophets between 800 and 500BC. And it is in the light of the teaching of the prophets that the rest of the saga of Old Testament history was written. It is seen as a kind of manifest destiny that the descendants of Abraham would escape their years of slavery in Egypt and conquer the land of Canaan as the Chosen People of the one true God.

Butt the stories at the very beginning of the Old Testament in the Book of Genesis are actually Babylonian stories added to the beginning of the Hebrew narratives and given an interpretation consistent with the later teaching of the prophets. The stories of creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Great Flood and the Tower of Babel were all stories picked up by the people of Judah during their time of exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC.

Hebrew religion was about God’s choice of the people of Israel and his demand that they should live in accordance with his Law. Babylonian religion was very different - concerned above all with creation and fertility, the seasons and the fruitfulness of the earth, animals and human beings. These themes were taken into Hebrew religion but adapted to suit its monotheism and its deep sense of morality.

So Genesis tells us that creation is the free act of God alone; he creates everything out of nothing. Men and women are the crown of this act of creation; they are made in the image of God himself. This means that we share something of God’s deepest nature - the ability to make free moral choices between good and evil.

But the prophets underline the absolute failure of the human race to live in communion with God, with nature and with each other. We choose self before others, evil before good, death before life. For the prophets, the answer is repentance. For many centuries sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins were offered in the temple at Jerusalem; today, Judaism is content with the annual Day of Atonement.

A more psychological interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve would see men and women leaving behind animal innocence as they learn to exercise free moral choices and to live with the consequences. We cannot go back to innocence and we should not want to do so. We can only struggle forward to a new human maturity - the struggle which faces all humanity. Jesus is the model of the new humanity, the fulfilment of the hopes of the prophets, the one who chooses and demonstrates the way of self-giving love and self-sacrifice. The incarnation is the supreme act of God’s self-sacrifice, accepting our human life and our human death. Calvary is the supreme act of human self-sacrifice, demonstrating the nature of love.

For that is what we are doing here - learning the nature of love in its highest form - love as self-giving, infinitely generous, never counting the cost. The creation itself was surely an act of such great love - the sheer overflowing of the dynamic of love of God the Holy Trinity. And we are called to live that life of love ourselves. Perhaps the Garden of Eden is not so much the story of our fall from perfection, for we were never perfect, but rather a reflection of our struggle to grow in love. As Blake says:

We are put upon this earth a little space

to learn to bear the beams of love.

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